Ah, cheesy pasta bake. The best comfort food in the world, not least because you can put practically anything in it successfully. Pasta bakes are my go-to dish when I have a lot of random vegetables in the fridge and no idea what to do with them. Or when I have bits of cheese in the fridge with no apparent unifying factor. Or when I am tired and unimaginative and just want some melty cheesy goodness to make everything better.
My pasta bakes actually started life as tuna casserole, but over the years, the veggies have gradually edged out the tuna. Corn developed companion onions, then capsicums and carrots and celery, then baby spinach or other leafy greens, then asparagus or tomato or cauliflower or broccoli, and pretty soon you end up with a situation where you look at the casserole dish and you look at the vegetables and the cheesy sauce and you realise that you will have to choose between adding tuna and adding pasta (or a situation in which you pile everything into the dish, totaly misjudge its capacity, and end up with cheese sauce all over the kitchen). The tuna always loses. The cheesy sauce, you will note, is never even considered as something to leave out. While I have made pasta bakes without it, cheesy sauce really is the point of this dish.
Anyway, while I never really make the same pasta bake twice, tonight’s iteration was successful enough that I felt I ought to write it down. The quantities are a little vague, but I think you should view this not as a bug but as a feature – consider the areas of uncertainty an opportunity for you to add your own chosen ingredients. Or more cheese. Go wild!
Your shopping list
(technically, this is not a shopping list, because if you are doing this right, it’s more of a case of foraging through the fridge and realising that hey, you have a roasted pepper over here, and look! there’s still some mascarpone left! But if you are actually trying to replicate what I did, here is what you need.)1/2 a bunch of baby spinach 1/2 a bunch of rocket 1 roasted pepper 2 heads of broccoli 2 heads of baby cauliflower or half a head of the full-grown kind 6 spring onions 75 g butter (garlic butter is good) 90 g flour 750 ml milk 1 chipotle pepper in adobo, plus a couple of teaspoons of the sauce 100 g cheddar 100 g parmesan (actually, I have absolutely no idea how much cheese I used, but it was certainly a lot) 75 g mascarpone, maybe. I really have no idea about this one – it was what was left in the tub… black pepper 375 g curly pasta or short pasta of your choice
Wash the spinach and rocket, drain, and microwave for a minute or so, until mostly wilted. Chop fairly finely and put in a large casserole dish. Chop the roasted pepper and fling that in, too.
Wash your cauliflower and broccoli and cut into florets. Peel and chop up some of the broccoli stems, too. Set aside in a colander for now. Grate all the cheese and set aside. Finely chop the chipotle pepper. Slice the spring onions.
Put the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat, along with the spring onions. While the butter is melting and the onions are starting to cook, fill a big stock pot with water and get it heating. Once the butter is melted, raise the heat a bit, add the flour, and whisk like mad until it all comes together. Let cook a minute or so, still whisking, then gradually whisk in the milk until it is all incorporated. If you do this gradually, you won’t get lumps.
Bring slowly to the boil, whisking constantly. You can add the chipotle and sauce any time after you add the milk, incidentally, and add the black pepper now, too. The sauce should thicken a little as it reaches the boil. Put on low heat and let cook gently for a minute or two while you add the mascarpone and most of the grated cheese. Once everything has melted into the sauce, turn off the heat.
By now, your water should be boiling. Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Add the broccoli and cauliflower to the cooking water a minute or two before the pasta is done. Drain the whole lot and add to the casserole dish with the sauce. Mix everything well, and add the last of the grated cheese over the top.
Bake at 180°C for half an hour or until golden-brown and bubbling on top. This amount should serve six people quite amply.
You can put absolutely anything in a bake like this. Most recently, I did a version with smoked trout and sun dried tomatoes, but really, the sky is your limit. The amount of chipotle I used gives it a nice smokiness and just enough heat that a complete chilli-wimp like me finds it about as spicy as it needs to be, and my fire-eating husband finds it pleasantly mild but definitely present, so feel free to adjust this for your target audience. I think the cheesy sauce manages to give it more punch while at the same time making me less likely to cry as a result of said punch.
In terms of dietary requirements, my béchamel post gives variations for the gluten and lactose intolerant (goat and sheep’s milk and cheese do work in this sauce, if you can manage dairy of no-bovine origin) as well as a soy béchamel for the completely dairy-averse. I am told that nutritional yeast gives a cheesy flavour to a dairy-free béchamel, but have not tried this myself. This meal is rather a dairy-fest, however, so you might do better to skip it in favour of something which works well without dairy in the first place.
If you have concerns about the glycemic index of this, my best advice would be to increase the vegetable-to-pasta ratio – though, actually, I seem to have done that automatically, as there’s only about 60 g of pasta per person in this recipe, and quite a bit of fibre from the vegetables so it isn’t too bad in that respect. It’s decidedly not low fat, however. That is not the purpose of this dish at all.